More (Or Less) Human Than Human

CRISPR brings transhumanist dreams of technologically-mediated human perfection nearer to reality, but our complex world of human affairs might not be disrupted so easily.

To wield ultimate human-mediated agency over the genetic fates of our species as long been a founding aim of the broad, ad-hoc social movement known as transhumanism. It is also, thanks to largely privately-backed investment in emerging biotechnology research, now firmly in the realm of applicable real-world usage. To manipulate our DNA in the pursuit of eradicating disease and achieving physical perfection is no longer just the stuff of the speculative fiction from which so many transhuman visions are lifted, but inching ever nearer to commodification, regulation, and eventually, if shepherded successfully through those first two enormous hurdles, wide-spread medical adoption.

Beyond its more sympathetic desires for a life without suffering, transhumanist visions of physical and cognitive enhancement and transcendence are undergirded by an often unacknowledged or outright repudiated body-loathing, which on evidence is difficult to deny. Biohacking, gene sequencing, brain augmentation through cyborgification (chip implants to grant new mental acuities are an active area of neurobiological research), “curing” aging, eliminating disease and disability, and in its most extreme, crypto-religious incarnation, achieving a post-human immortality where physical death is optional, all form the basis of transhumanism’s project.

In this conception of a post-human state, our currently non-augmented bodies with which we are born are seen to be sub-optimal, imprisoning us in certain death. They are seen to be almost primordial, still in their infancy, and not the end result of millions of years of evolution. For transhumanists, the discovery of advanced DNA manipulation processes indicates that their vision is correct: to them it is inevitable that further advancements of similar discoveries will eventually, inevitably, give us total control over chaotic nature.

CRISPR, the ground breaking DNA sequencing tool, might be the most precise gene-editing process so far at the disposal of biologists, but human beings did not invent it. It exists in our own bodies as a bacterial defense against viruses—remnants of which the immune system retains in order to fight them off if they return, a form of in-built immunization. This natural defense mechanism provides a very precise way of cutting and manipulating DNA; the body’s enzymes activate it in order to neutralize viruses. something which, as it can be lab controlled to affect other genome mutations, could have wide-reaching implications for manipulating thousands of genetic DNA sequences, particularly in stem-cell cultures. CRISPR’s potential allows for the genetic manipulation of all species on Earth, plant and animal. In what is known as “de-extinction,” its technology has the potential to perhaps resurrect long dead species and to grow hardier crops that could thrive in a climate change ravaged planet.

CRISPR might be the most precise gene-editing process so far at the disposal of biologists, but human beings did not invent it.

Given the unprecedented possibilities that CRISPR promises to unlock, it could be said that the most complex machines will never be built by humans—they already exist in nature at the foundational, microscopic level of some of the oldest bricks of human life. The enzymes which led to the discovery are found in the bacteria of strep infection; what could, in decades from now, bring about the elimination of all disease is itself the byproduct of diseased cells in the human body.

For many transhumanists our bodies inspire outright revulsion; they decay, succumb to illness, become decrepit and old and eventually cease to exist. Mental decline is an inevitable fate awaiting all of us. These fates are for many of its adherents almost worse than death itself. Transhumanism’s goals in seeking to eradicate these unavoidable stages of human life is often configured as a quasi-spiritual quest to end human suffering and can easily be read as a religious movement, where belief in an afterlife has been replaced with a belief in science and technology’s inexorable forward march that will lead us to a place where we can control nature to the ultimate extent where death—the entropic state of all things in the universe—itself is eradicated.

For many transhumanists our bodies inspire outright revulsion; they decay, succumb to illness, become decrepit and old and eventually cease to exist.

This is also where contemporary transhumanism’s faith in the technological sublime meets the fertile technofuturist milieu from which it sprang in what is now Silicon Valley: bodies that decay and die and cease to serve their purpose are above all else inefficient. To treat a human body more like a machine—to “hack” and “upgrade” it, to meld it with augmented non-organic parts, to debug it, to eliminate its junk DNA—is to borrow from a techno-lexicon and make a post-human body into an object that is perfectly efficient and that can fulfill its purpose, whatever that is deemed to be, in theory, forever. It can work, and work perfectly, until the end of time. Lest this be interpreted as an explicitly capitalist expression of the individual, transhumanists are also fixated on ushering in a post-scarcity and post-work society where artificially intelligent machine automation and on-demand resource production (most often through 3-D printing) will result in an idyllic arcadia where pure hedonism and the pursuit of leisure are post-humanity’s sole domains. Scant serious attention is paid to the profound social, economic and environmental havoc these shifts would bring about in the real world, which is why, in addition to its fundamental entwinement with science fiction, transhumanist visions of future utopia can so easily be cast as dystopic nightmares instead.

With the emergence of practicable technologies like CRISPR and the enormous amounts of private investment capital being poured into other biotech research and development projects, the profoundly complex question of ethics emerges. If it were possible to completely safely eliminate all disease through DNA-manipulation, would it be morally and ethically wrong not to? If it were possible to eradicate neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinsonism and Alzheimer’s, who would argue against it? To cure HIV/AIDS and cancer? What if mental illness could be isolated and prevented, ending depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, sociopathy, psychopathy? What of the conceivable attendant drop in crime?

Many transhumanists would argue that anyone standing against these possibilities is morally repugnant. But choices are rather less clear when these arguments are applied to what many people consider not to be disabilities; communities including autism and the deaf and myriad other human conditions are not thought of by everyone as being disabling as a lived experience. Here is where the specter of eugenics is raised; beyond the broad discomfort with “designer babies,” who would get to make these decisions in line with which regulations? Would they fall under universal human rights? Are they purely questions of personal agency and private medical decision-making? Would they be universally available and affordable to anyone who wanted to make use of them, or the purview of the very wealthy few? As so many of these projects are currently undertaken in private, proprietary laboratories and as what were once the fringe proposals of a small number of theorists and futurists edge closer to wide-scale real-world application, the pressing issue of regulation comes to the fore. And it is the slow, lumbering and largely inefficient mess of democracy through which these increasingly nimble technological applications must pass.

Last year I spent many months dropping in on transhumanist meet ups in New York. There’s more of them than you might imagine. Several times a month people are gathering across the city to attend lectures and seminars and to compare notes on everything from biohacking to cosmism, venturism, futurism, life extension and Singularitarianism. I wanted to try and get a sense of who the average transhumanist was, if such a person existed. I would shortly be profiling the transhumanist presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, who was driving across America in a bus in the shape of a coffin. His campaign, I would find, was not about serious political rigor in any real sense and was more an excuse for him to spend time on a free-wheeling road-trip and to bring attention to himself, than to meaningfully interrogate the ramifications of any of his ideas.

The meetings skewed mostly male, and largely white, but there were sometimes a handful of women and people of color. A lot of people I spoke to worked in information technology and its related fields, some in finance or engineering or education. Mostly they were young, in their twenties or thirties, with a smattering of older people closing in on retirement. Everyone was overwhelmingly upwardly mobile and successful, rounded out by a few wide-eyed university students still figuring out what they believed. These meetings were openly welcoming if not underscored by a kind of austere seriousness. The merely curious, like me, were firmly in the minority compared with the people who were several years and occasionally decades into seeing the world through transhumanism’s lens.

One lecture I attended was on the proactionary principle, where the controversial philosopher Steven Fuller gave a talk on how politics will be the arena in which transhumanism’s battles will be fought. The proactionary principle was formulated by Max More, modern transhumanism’s most prolific philosopher and cryonics enthusiast. It’s the inverse of the precautionary principle—the argument that complex systems should be approached cautiously when changing them could likely be irreversible, as in geo-engineering the environment when no known outcomes are predictable and the possible results catastrophic. When the splitting of the atom made possible for the first time the total destruction of all human life at our own hands, the precautionary principle drastically took the sheen off technoutopianism and brought the giddy excitement of the atomic age to a sobering halt.

The proactionary principle posits that technological progress should not be impeded by regulation or caution, which is why it is so beloved by the Silicon Valley technocapitalists funding so much transhumanist research. The proactionary principle is essentially start-up culture’s hallowed mantra, “ask forgiveness, not permission” applied to the complex realm of human affairs. It also rests on the appallingly egocentric and unfalsifiable notion that human existence sits at the center of the universe.

Fuller said that if transhumanists want to be taken seriously, politics will be the only avenue through which they might achieve their intention to redefine the meaning of human being. The talk was complex and involved and divergent and everyone’s pizza had long turned cold. There was a palpable sense of impatience in the room by the time questions were taken from the audience.

“Who cares about politics? When this all happens we are going to be so far beyond any of that, it won’t matter. Why are we even talking about this stuff? It’s a waste of time.”

One guy, fit and in his twenties, well-dressed in a white collared shirt and pressed pants, stuck up his hand immediately and said, pent-up and exasperated, “Who cares about politics? When this all happens we are going to be so far beyond any of that, it won’t matter. Why are we even talking about this stuff? It’s a waste of time.”

The room cheered as one with enthusiasm.

The reality of ushering in an epoch of unprecedentedly powerful biotech is rather more prosaic than wresting on the assumption that in a few scant decades the same technologies will have transcended human affairs so completely that regulation and politics itself will be meaningless and irrelevant. Rather, regulation will grind its cumbersome and necessary wheels through the vexed processes of establishing legal frameworks for potentially species-altering technologies, a process engaging a bewildering number of stakeholders from the fields of medicine, politics and the law, at local, state, federal and international jurisdictions.

A “proactionary” stance is one fuelled largely by impatience and frustration coupled with the technofuturist utopian adage that “technology wants what it wants,” and that its pursuit is humanity’s highest calling, regardless of how dangerous or deadly that might prove to be. In this vision technology acts as a kind of supernatural force decoupled from human affairs, almost resembling a virus: fatalistically unstoppable, vaguely sinister, unknowable. But technology is no more than a tool of human beings, and no matter how supernatural its affects might appear—resurrecting prehistoric animals, erasing disease, splicing genes, weaponizing disease—the thorny and imperfect realms of politics and the law are the theatres in which these arguments will continue to play out, for now firmly tethering our otherworldly futures to Earth.

Elmo’s warning here might seem at odds with the joyful approach to “mindcl one” technology that we discuss with Martine Rothblatt, but it’s not. Her argument is a simple one. A few decades from now, our mastery of tools such as CRISPR will inevitably present the possibility of a scenario science fiction has long warned us about. De-extinction, the end of death, the end of imperfection. Whether that’s dystopia or utopia depends on your point of view, but the basic moral questions of existence on this planet, of how we treat each other and care for each other, of how we organize ourselves, will not be disrupted away. Living by the precautionary principle is a lesson we’ve learned before, and must continue to heed — AR

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